Truck Pulling Travel Trailer

Towing a Trailer? Let's Talk About Brake Controllers

If you're new to trailer towing and you're on this page, you've probably heard that you need something called an electric brake controller to safely tow your travel trailer, fifth wheel, or other trailer. Obviously braking is important, but what exactly is a brake controller, and why do you need one? What are your brake controller options, and how do you choose between them?Below, we'll give you a rundown of the basic need-to-know info on brake controllers, so you can choose the right setup for your trailer and stay safe on the road.
Custom Fit Brake Controller
Select your vehicle to confirm the compatibility of your brake controller:
Brake Controller Installed
Brake Controller Control Knob

1. What is a Trailer Brake Controller and How Does it Work?

A trailer brake controller is a small electronic device that installs in your tow vehicle's cab and activates your trailer brakes via an electrical signal whenever you apply your tow vehicle brakes. This basically just means that when you hit the brakes in your car, the brake controller delivers the message to your trailer so that it can stop too.Why is this important? Well, you don't want the full responsibility of braking to fall on either the trailer or vehicle. Imagine a scenario in which your trailer isn't capable of braking: you're traveling 60 mph down the highway when you hit the brakes. Your tow vehicle stops, but the momentum of the trailer keeps pushing you forward, increasing your stopping distance and possibly even causing a crash.What about simply wiring your tow vehicle's brake signal directly to your trailer? Technically, you'll have brakes, but you'll be "braking bad" (not to be confused with the hit TV series). This setup would provide maximum braking power 100% of the time, which will quicklly wear out your brakes and result in some rough stops.Brake controllers help manage your stopping distance and control trailer sway by syncing up the two sets of brakes (tow vehicle and trailer) so that both activate when you need them. Braking intensity and the speed at which your brakes are applied can be adjusted based on your trailer size, load weight, road conditions, etc. Brake controllers also come equipped with a manual override, which allows you to apply the trailer brakes without applying the brakes in your tow vehicle (this is particularly useful in stopping trailer sway, or opening a manual slider for a 5th wheel hitch in a short-bed truck).Do You Need a Brake Controller?If you have a trailer with electric or electric-over-hydraulic brakes, you usually need a brake controller. Most states have laws on the books about brake controller requirements (typically any trailer 3,000 lbs or more requires one, although laws vary by state).

2. What Types of Brake Controllers Are There?

So now that you know how a brake controller works, where do you go from here?The next step is choosing the type of brake controller that best suits your towing needs. Brake controllers can be categorized by two main types: proportional and time-delayed. These categories have to do with the intensity and consistency in which the controller applies your brakes.

Proportional Brake Controllers

Most newer brake controllers are proportional, and most users will opt for one of these.Proportional controllers apply the brakes in your trailer with the same force as you apply the brakes in your vehicle. That is, if you have to slam on your brakes on the highway, your trailer brakes will be applied proportionally. If you roll to a stop at a red light, your trailer will gently stop as well. The rate of your trailer braking is proportional to the rate of your tow vehicle brakes. A hard stop is a hard stop, and a soft stop is a soft stop, every time. This is thanks to the internal accelerometers that proportional controllers use to monitor your vehicle's speed and braking force. If you're forced to stay still for a while—say, if you're stuck in traffic—your brake controller will automatically cut power to your trailer brakes to prevent them from getting too hot while you're stuck in place.THE GOODProportional controllers are ideal for the majority of towing scenarios, provide the smoothest braking, and cause less wear on your braking system. You don't have to worry about your trailer braking too hard or not hard enough, which can result in a "push/pull" effect on your vehicle. Proportional controllers will always match your vehicle braking power and tailor their intensity to each individual braking event.THE BADThe main drawback to proportional controllers is their generally higher cost (although the price gap between some proportional and time-delayed models has narrowed significantly in recent years). Can you get a top-of-the-line proportional controller for the same price as a time-delayed model? No. But you can snag certain proportional controllers for about $30-$40 dollars more than a time-delayed model, and for most towing enthusiasts, this price gap is well worth it.Another minor downside to proportional controllers is that because they rely on internal sensors, most traditional controllers must be mounted at a specific angle in the vehicle cab. (This is no longer the case for some newer proportional controllers, however, as we'll discuss below.)
Proportional Brake Controllers Braking Power
WHEN DOES BRAKING OCCUR?Depends on the deceleration of your tow vehicle.HOW INTENSE IS BRAKING POWER?Depends on deceleration of your tow vehicle. Proportional controllers adapt to each individual braking situation. WHO USES PROPORTIONAL CONTROLLERS? Most people! The vast majority of the trailer-towing population uses proportional controllers.

Time-Delayed Brake Controllers

Once upon a time, all brake controllers were time-delayed models. A time-delayed model (also called "user-controlled") allows you to select how much power travels to your brakes, and how much of a delay occurs between your vehicle and trailer brake activation. The trailer will brake the same way every time you apply your vehicle brakes as long as these settings are selected.THE GOODAlthough most people opt for proportional models, that doesn't mean time-delayed controllers are without merit. Firstly, time-delayed controllers do not rely on internal sensors to function, so they can be mounted at any angle and are relatively easy to install. This is great for vehicles with limited cab space.Secondly, time-delayed models are also more economically priced than proportional models. You'll have no trouble finding a time-delayed brake controller for well under $100.Time-delayed models are also ideal for off-road use due to the unique control you have over the trailer brakes. For instance, if you brake hard in your vehicle but don't want your trailer wheels biting into the ground from a proportionally hard stop, you can select the "light braking" option for your controller and let the controller do its job.THE BADOf course, the downside to time-delayed controllers is that they do not provide proportional braking. Your trailer brakes will function the same during every braking event, which can result in an uncomfortable push/pull sensation as you drive as well as uneven wear on your brakes over time.Another drawback (although minor, it's worth mentioning) is that time-delayed models can allow the brakes to pulse on and off when your hazard flashes are activated. This happens because power from the brake lights can feed back into the brake controller. (Note that this can happen with certain proportional controllers, such as the Tekonsha Prodigy RF, as well.) However, a pulse preventer will isolate the brake controller from the flashers and eliminate this problem.Also be aware that some newer vehicles are not compatible with time-delayed brake controllers. For instance, the stoplight circuits in 2013-2014 Ram trucks do not produce enough power to activate time-delayed controllers. Use our fitguide to find brake controllers compatible with your vehicle.
Time-Delayed Brake Controllers Braking Power
WHEN DOES BRAKING OCCUR? A predetermined time after you apply your tow vehicle brakes. This delay can be adjusted.HOW INTENSE IS BRAKING POWER?Depends on the power setting. You can set the brakes to be very powerful or relatively light, depending on your personal preference, road conditions, trailer type, and load size. The same amount of preset braking power will be sent to your trailer brakes every time, no matter the braking situation.WHO USES TIME-DELAYED CONTROLLERS?Those navigating off-road landscapes; those who tow infrequently and prefer a budget option.
DID YOU KNOW? Some newer brake controllers, like the Redarc Tow-Pro Elite, offer both proportional braking for everyday use as well as a time-delayed (user-controlled) mode for off-road use.

3. Installation, Adjustment, and Price: Picking the Perfect Controller

Once you've chosen between time-delayed and proportional brake controllers, the next step is choosing the specific model that will suit your needs. There are 4 main mounting options available for modern brake controllers:
  • Traditional under-dash controllers: Main module is a box that mounts beneath your dashboard.
  • Wireless controllers: No hardwiring required. Controlled via remote or smartphone.
  • Trailer-mounted controllers: Main module mounts on your trailer frame and is controlled via remote.
  • Dashboard knob controllers: Hardwired like a traditional box, but controlled via a discreet knob on your dashboard.
Each of these brake controller types comes with its own benefits and drawbacks. The factors likely to be the most influential in helping you choose a brake controller are the ease of installation (if installing it yourself), the display method, the convenience of use, and the price.We'll go over each of the following types in more depth below.

Type 1: Traditional Under-Dash Brake Controllers

Under-Dash Brake Controllers
Proportional and Time-Delayed Brake Controller Models
Wrench Installation Icon
INSTALLATIONThe installation of one of these older-style, traditional models is generally going to be more complex than most other types. However, installation can vary widely depending on your vehicle and what it is already equipped with.Vehicles with 7-way: A vehicle-specific wiring adapter is often available so you can avoid hardwiring the controller and just plug-and-play. Use our brake controller fitguide to see recommended adapters for your vehicle.Vehicles with 4-way: Use a 7-way installation kit like # ETBC7. Vehicles with no pre-wiring: Add a 4-way and use a 7-way installation kit like # ETBC7. Check out this installation guide for more step-by-step help.(For a more detailed explanation on how to install a traditional brake controller, check out our article here.)
Wiring a Traditional Brake Controller
Brake Control Display Icon
DISPLAYMost proportional controllers have digital LED or LCD display screens for information like your brake power output, boost settings, and error codes. However, some proportional controllers include function indicator lights rather than display screens. If you are afflicted with underperforming eyesight, consider the size and brightness of any screens or indicators when selecting a model.
Convenience Emoji
CONVENIENCEThese are among the least convenient types of controllers to use. This is because they are relatively boxy and bulky, and they must be mounted (often at a specified angle, in the case of proportional controllers) in your vehicle cab, right around knee height. This can be an issue if your cab is already crowded, or if you have long legs that keep bumping the brake controller.
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PRICEWhat traditional brake controllers lack in convenience they make up for in price. While prices can range into the premium-price levels, it is also possible to find inexpensive models under $100.

Type 2: Wireless Brake Controllers

Wireless Brake Controllers
Proportional and Time-Delayed Brake Controller Models
Wrench Installation Icon
INSTALLATIONWireless brake controllers are relatively new, but they're popular for good reason. You can skip the complex wiring setup involved in other controllers with a simple wireless setup.The Curt Echo is perhaps the easiest brake controller on the market to install. Simply plug the unit in between your 7-way trailer connection, download the mobile app to your smartphone, and pair your devices using Bluetooth. No crimping, splicing, or other alterations necessary, provided you already have a vehicle with a 7-way plug (if you don't, you can add one).Another popular wireless model is the trailer-mounted Tekonsha Prodigy RF. Simply plug your trailer's 7-way connector into the Prodigy and connect the Prodigy to your tow vehicle's 7-way. You can control the Tekonsha via a remote control (ncluded) from your vehicle's cab.
Brake Control Display Icon
DISPLAYFor the Echo, the display is something you're already familiar with—your cell phone! No tiny LCD screens to squint at here. Just open the app on your smartphone and adjust the device as needed.The Prodigy's display is featured on the included remote control, which plus into a standard 12v accessory outlet in your vehicle's cab.
Convenience Emoji
CONVENIENCEWireless brake controllers are perhaps the most convenient on the market. With no bulky box to bump against in the cab, they won't get in your way while you drive or interfere with airbags or other vehicle accessories during installation. They're easy to install, easy to operate, and easy to move between vehicles.
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PRICEThis is where more traditional controllers have the advantage. Wireless controllers are still more expensive than most of their old-fashioned predecessors. However, if you plan on towing frequently, the ease of use is often worth the added cost.

Type 3: Dash-Mounted Brake Controller Knobs

Dash-Mounted Brake Controllers
Proportional and Time-Delayed Brake Controller Models
Wrench Installation Icon
INSTALLATIONThis style of brake controller installs in much the same way as a traditional controller. The only difference is that you will also have to install and wire the dash-mounted knob. You can mount the knob anywhere in your cab (drill mount and adhesive mount options are available), at any orientation, while the main module mounts out of sight.Vehicles with 7-way: A vehicle-specific wiring adapter is often available so you can avoid hardwiring the controller and just plug-and-play. Use our brake controller fitguide to see recommended adapters for your vehicle.Vehicles with 4-way: Use a 7-way installation kit like # ETBC7.Vehicles with no pre-wiring: Add a 4-way and use a 7-way installation kit like # ETBC7. Check out this installation guide for more step-by-step help.(For a more detailed explanation on how to install a traditional brake controller, check out our article here.)
Wiring a Brake Controller - Knob Style
Brake Control Display Icon
DISPLAYThe control knob is your means of adjustment as well as your display. These knobs are equipped with multicolored LED lights to indicate information such as braking power, selected settings, and diagnostics.
Convenience Emoji
CONVENIENCEDash-mounted knobs allow you to maintain the look and feel of your vehicle cab. Rather than take up space with a bulky brake control box, these knobs allow for a discret, OEM look without cramping your style (or your legs). There are no tiny LCD displays to squint at like with traditional box brake controller—just easily visible LED knobs. Just think of a radio volume knob that happens to control your trailer brakes.Both proportional and time-delayed (also known as "off-road"/"user-controlled") models are available. Redarc's Tow-Pro Elite even allows you to switch between these settings.
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PRICEDash-mounted knob brake controllers hover around the mid-price point for brake controllers. You won't find them under $100 (think closer to $200), but you won't typically pay as much as you would for a wireless or trailer-mounted device.

Type 4: Trailer-Mounted Brake Controllers

Trailer-Mounted Brake Controllers
Proportional and Time-Delayed Brake Controller Models
Wrench Installation Icon
INSTALLATIONTrailer-mounted brake controllers allow you to mount the main module on your trailer, rather than in your vehicle cab. Most trailer-mounted brake controllers like the Tekonsha Prodigy RF and the Curt Echo are wireless and connect to your 7-way connector. This means no hardwiring or vehicle modification is necessary, provided you already have a 7-way plug (if you don't, you can add one).Other brake controllers, like the Autowbrake, must be harwired into your trailer's wiring. Again, no vehicle modification is necessary as long as you already have a 7-way plug.
Brake Control Display Icon
DISPLAYThe mode of display depends on the individual controller. The Curt Echo uses a smartphone display via a downloadable mobile app. The Prodigy RF features a remote with a digital screen. The Autowbrake's module features an LED light.
Convenience Emoji
CONVENIENCEThis type of brake controller can vary in terms of convenience and ease of use. All trailer-mounted controllers have the benefit of keeping your cab relatively clutter-free while still allowing you the power to easily adjust your braking system. Since they attach via your 7-way connector, the require zero vehicle modification to install or use. These are also great controllers to use if you plan on switching tow vehicles frequently, since they don't involve any extra setup on the vehicle itself.The wireless Curt Echo is perhaps the easiest to operate and involves no additional parts to keep track of in your cab, since it connects to your phone via Bluetooth.The Prodigy RF includes a portable remote with digital display that may be plugged into your vehicle's 12v accessory outlet. This display is convenient to use, but the remote is bulkier than the Autowbrake's fob or the Echo's cell phone display.The Autowbrake has a discreet fob that can be attached to your key ring, much like a vehicle key fob. This is quite convenient, but the LED display on the module itself cannot be seen from the cab.
Price Icon
PRICEDue to their ease of use and discreet appearance, trailer-mounted brake controllers are among the priciest options. However, if you plan on towing frequently, these upgraded devices are well worth the cost.
Remote Brake Controller
Trailer Mounted Brake Controller

4. How to Test/Adjust a Trailer Brake Controller

It's important to test and adjust your brake controller settings as needed for each towing job. Every vehicle/trailer combo is different—even the same vehicle/trailer combo can be different if you're towing very different loads each time. Some brake controllers, like the Tekonsha P3 and the Curt Echo, allow you to store multiple vehicle-trailer profiles so you can easily switch between them.Carefully read any manufacturer's instructions included with your brake controller. This will include instructions on how to adjust and calibrate the device to meet your needs.The most common way to test your brake controller once you make your initial adjustments is to drive slowly (about 25 mph) on a dry, level surface, such as an empty parking lot. If it takes too long for your vehicle to stop when your trailer is attached, increase the braking intensity output of your brake controller. If your trailer brakes lock up, gradually decrease the braking intensity output. Ideally, you want your trailer brakes to have maximum braking power without the wheels locking up.
Truck Pulling Trailer
Which Would I Choose, and Why? (Author's Choice)There's no one right answer when it comes to choosing a brake controller. The right device depends on your situation, your vehicle, and your budget.But if we can get personal for a moment, I'll offer my personal opinion, based on my own research and product knowledge.MY TOP PICKIf I'm towing a trailer with any regularity, my top choice is the Curt Echo, no question about it. Aside from being supremely easy to install on most vehicles (I love an installation that I can't possibly mess up), the Echo is also one of the most discreet controllers. I like a clean car, so I don't want some bulky accessory hanging out on my dash when I don't need it.My favorite thing about the Echo, however, is the ability to control it from my cell phone. Like a lot of people, I rely on my phone for a lot of day-to-day tasks: it wakes me up in the morning, guides me through unfamiliar roads to new locations, and lets me browse my favorite websites. Being able to adjust my trailer brakes via a device I already use every day makes the Curt Echo my #1 choice. HONORABLE MENTIONAs I said above, the right brake controller depends on your towing situation, and I wouldn't recommend the Curt Echo to everyone. If I was someone who hated the idea of using my phone to adjust my brake controller, or if I was planning on doing a lot of off-roading, I'd go with the Redarc Tow-Pro Elite. Installation is a little more involved, but the Elite offers braking options for both off-road and highway driving, and the dash-mounted knob allows my car to keep its clean OEM look.
Curt Echo Smartphone Control
Curt Echo
Pictured above: The Curt Echo brake controller
Redarc Tow-Pro Elite
Pictured above: The Redarc Tow-Pro Elite brake controller
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Related ArticlesRelated ProductsWritten by: Amber S.Updated on: 10/23/19


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